A university is just a group of buildings gathered around a library. ~Shelby Foote

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Artemus, Two Moons Over Ninevah, part ii

[The Beginning] [The Previous Bit]

Artemus started awake. His heart was racing, and his hands were raised like claws in front of him. Eyes darting all around, he quickly determined that he was alone. No dogs were chasing him. No minotaurs were tracking him.

A dream. Just a dream.

Then his stomach rumbled, and he realized he was famished. Instinctively, he snatched a nearby meat encrusted bone and began gnawing on it. Only as the first chunks of flesh slid down his throat did he realize the meat wasn’t cooked.

With a look of revulsion, he held the bloody, stringy mass of flesh and bone away from his face. It was a sheep leg. And part of it had the curling wool of the animal still attached.

Artemus threw the half-eaten leg to the ground in disgust, yet even as he did so, his stomach rumbled again. And his mouth watered as his eyes tracked the path of the leg to the ground.

What is happening to me? Looking around, Artemus was appalled to discover the bones and remains of many sheep— and what must be cows— scattered amongst the underbrush of the small thicket in which he had awoken. What has happened to me?

He eyed his current home distastefully, then noted a small bundle near the bed of leaves he had awoken upon. With a faint stirring of memory, Artemus made his way to the bag, and became aware for the first time that he was naked. A light breeze sent shivers down his bare skin, and as he unwrapped the bundle he was not surprised to discover his clothes and his boots preserved within. Why do I remember wrapping these up? Why don’t I remember why I wrapped these up?

But he knew that the answer to his second question was unlikely to be forthcoming— he remembered very little beyond his name and his recent encounters at the Lazy Dragon Inn. A flash here of a beautiful woman with long, black hair and smoldering eyes. A flash there of an imposing older gentleman he both feared and loved. Fertile fields and huge spreading trees. The rest was a void— a gaping hole where memories of his childhood should be. Where his life should be. As he slowly put on the carefully bundled clothes, Artemus was unaware of the tears gently tracking their way through the grime on his face.

He finished dressing and slowly picked his way out of the thicket. It was a difficult task, and when he emerged from the tightly packed saplings and bushes, he noted that whatever creature had made the thicket its home had chosen very well. Looking back from where he had just emerged, Artemus was hard pressed to find the entrance. He wondered how he might have found the thicket in the first place, and gave thanks that whatever beast had slain all of those sheep and cattle hadn’t come home to its lair last night.

As he made his way out into the surrounding woods, he noted a paw print in the loose dirt. A big paw print— larger than his hand and made by a wolf from the looks of it. Artemus shivered and once again gave thanks he had escaped the creature’s notice.

Artemus soon reached a small clearing, and using the fading outline of Romendor’s second, smaller, moon, he was able to determine that it was six days after his strange encounters at the Lazy Dragon Inn. By the faint glow in the east, he had awoken just before sunrise.

Six days. More time lost, Artemus thought, mournfully. He remembered the fight at the Inn, the tremendous explosion of energy he had felt when the assassins had attacked. The way everyone else had seemed to move in slow motion while he moved easily among them, threw the assassins aside like they were weightless. The glee that had coursed through him as he tore the throats out of several of his attackers still made him shudder.

After the fight, he remembered the way that strange woman, Melian— dragon if Antionette was to be believed— had seemed to stare into his very soul. Melian had told him to leave Ninevah for a week, and for some reason, Artemus had instantly believed it important to follow her instructions. He remembered leaving the city in a rush, and again the way people seemed to be moving slower than he was— not as slowly as the assassins had, but slow none-the-less. For some reason, he had headed south, had felt it important to go that direction.

The first day away from the city, he recalled wandering the country lanes, admiring the beautiful rolling hills, and gazing out over verdant fields of grain. The sights seemed familiar to him, though he knew he had never been to the outlands of Ninevah Island before. He suspected that maybe his home had not been too dissimilar from these lands, that the people that worked the lands of his home weren’t unlike the farmers and blacksmiths and cobblers he met in the small towns outside the massive walls of Ninevah the city. He hoped this was what home was like, for he enjoyed the tour of the island very much.

The people seemed friendlier too, out in the country. He soon ran out of money, but the inn- and tavern-keepers never seemed to mind if he cut wood, or moved hay, or did some other chore to pay for his room and board. In part, this might have been from the incredible energy and power Artemus brought to the jobs— he seemed to be able to move things that took two or even three men normally— but he was sure part of it was just the more relaxed nature of country living.

By the end of the day after the fight, he was far out into the countryside, nearly to the wild lands. Now things started to get fuzzy, as his memory once again began failing him. He remembered staying in a barn that evening, rather than an inn, but he couldn’t recall why. Bad dreams had haunted him that evening, dreams of hunting, and of being hunted. But that was all he could recall, until waking this morning in the wolf’s thicket.

Shaking off the recollections, and his near constant craving for memories— any memories— Artemus oriented himself with the newly risen sun and headed north. Melian had said to return to the city in a week. If he started now, he should be back by evening of the seventh day after the fight at the Lazy Dragon.

He felt fit, though his stomach was still grumbling, and rested. Though the terrain here in the Ninevah’s wildlands was rough, strewn with brambles and fallen trees and overgrown in many areas by huge vines and ground creepers, he moved quickly. His tremendous strength and agility made traversing even the most difficult areas of ground fairly simple. As he made his way north, the vegetation began to thin, with larger trees but less undergrowth and more grass and open spaces between the ancient trees. Around mid-day, he happened upon a small thicket of tingleberries, and his now ravenous appetite forced him to pause and devour as many of the small, bluish-green berries as he could find. As their name implied, the juicy berries left him feeling tingly all over, and a little light-headed, but they momentarily quieted his stomach and he continued north, to Ninevah.

As he jogged through increasingly gentler terrain, Artemus rolled a small piece of paper between thumb and forefinger in one of his vest pockets. Written upon it, was a name— Jostan Higstiff. Artemus did not know this man, but Melian had given him the slip, and had told him the man could help him with his problem. Anybody who might be able to help Artemus fill in the huge void of his memory was worth seeking out.

Soon, signs of civilization began to appear. Fields began to dot the still tree-filled terrain, and a few small huts could be seen here and there. Distant plumes of smoke indicated where other dwellings were hidden amongst the woods. Ahead, Artemus spied a small road, more of a trail really, and he quickly made his way towards it. Once on the trail, he made better time, and by mid-afternoon he was once again famished, but also well into the more settled regions of Ninevah Island.

Oddly, there were few people about, and as he approached a small group of buildings, Artemus was surprised to find a good-sized group of people gathered with pitchforks and clubs near the entrance to the village. He slowed as he approached, though the group seemed to be in the middle of a heated discussion, and did not notice his approach until he was nearly upon them.

“We must find the beast and kill it!” yelled one man, and many others shouted encouragement when he did so.

“And wind up like old Ned Dithers?” shouted back another man. “With your throat ripped out, and your entrails eaten? Is that what you want?” He was a big man, and seemed to carry an air of authority about him. Several men and women near the larger man nodded their heads in agreement or murmured encouragement.

His angry questions quieted the crowd momentarily, but from the back, a small, wiry man took up the argument. “Well, what then Angus?" Do you suggest we all just cower in our homes and hope the beast bothers someone else? Do you mean to say we should allow it to kill all our cows and sheep the way it killed Ned’s?” This stirred up the majority of the crowd, and a new round of arguing appeared to be underway, until Artemus drew near.

His appearance quieted everyone, and soon all eyes were upon the tall man as he approached. The eyes were guarded, and angry. Fearful. They regarded Artemus suspiciously.

He stopped about ten feet from the glowering pack of villagers. “Greetings, good people,” he ventured. Stony silence was his only response. “I gather some great calamity has brought you all together here? Might I be of some assistance?” He wasn’t sure why he volunteered that last, but he hated to see these formerly happy people so nervous and suspicious. It was not as it should be, and if he could help restore things to their proper place, Artemus knew he would do what he could to assist.

His offer brought a gentle murmur from the crowd, and then the large man, Angus, stepped forward. “Greetings, young sir,” he said offering his huge hand to Artemus. “My apologies for the unruly nature of our town this day. We have indeed suffered a calamity, and though we appreciate your offer, there is little one man can do to assist.” His tone was sincere, and Artemus instantly liked him. An excellent leader, thought Artemus, and no doubt the village head here.

“Well, perhaps not, but who can say?” Artemus replied. He looked at the faces of the villagers. They were still fearful, but the stony glances had faded and a few smiles had appeared— mostly among the few women who had gathered for the ‘meeting’. “Why don’t we all retire to the inn and partake of some ale, and discuss it?” Artemus smiled his most charming smile.

Angus regarded him briefly, then his features hardened, and a stern look came over his face, “I am afraid not, young sir...”

“Artemus, but not sir, please.”

“Young Artemus. We are not normally an unfriendly village, but there is an evil abroad in this land, and we do not know you.” His tone was not harsh, nor unfriendly, yet both it and the look in Angus’ eyes were set and determined. He was protecting his village from the unknown.

“An evil?” replied Artemus. “If I can not assist, may I ask your indulgence in informing me on this evil of which you speak?”

Again, Angus regarded the younger man. Finally, he sighed, and his shoulders drooped slightly. “Certainly I can not send you out into the country unprepared, stranger or no. Three days ago, Ned Dithers, a farmer near the edges of the wildlands, was slaughtered by... something. His throat was torn out and then he was...” the large man shuddered at this point, and most of the villagers looked down at their feet. “Eaten. Eaten by whatever had killed him. His son found him. He also found their entire herd missing or eaten.”

“Oh Lord,” whispered Artemus.

“We believed it to be a wolf,” continued Angus, his voice hushed now, “because of the tracks near the house— near Ned. But it’s no common wolf— for the last two days guardsmen from Ninevah have hunted the wildlands with bloodhounds. They have found nothing. Nothing but more bodies of sheep and cattle. Whatever it is, it is smart— and very dangerous. It killed one of the tracking bloodhounds and left it hanging from a tree. Almost as if it were taunting its pursuers. Many believe it to be an apparition, and of this I am not certain. But I know of no wolf that can hang a dog from a tree. Do you, young Artemus?”

Artemus could only shake his head, mutely. The pain in the eyes of Angus and the rest of the villagers was too acute. He had no answer for them.

“Until this beast is caught, we are fearful. Untrusting. I do not believe you can blame us, and I think it would be best if you were to continue your journey.” Angus’ voice was hard now, covering the pain. “I am sorry.”

Artemus looked briefly into the larger man’s eyes. “I am sorry, as well,” he said. “For all of you, and most especially for Ned’s family.” He quickly nodded and made his way around the crowd of frightened villagers.

It was not until he was well out of town that his belly reminded him it had been hours since he had last eaten. And it was an hour after that, when Artemus finally thought to wonder why he hadn’t mentioned to Angus the lair of the wolf where he had awoken in this morning. He thought about going back, but his stomach was now a gnawing ache of hunger, and another small village could be seen on the horizon.

Artemus hoped it was less fearful than the last.

[The next bit]


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